The White Headhunter

The White Headhunter

by Nigel Randell
     
 

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Shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868, teenage Scots sailor Jack Renton then found himself on a voyage into the heart of darkness. Escaping from his floating prison in an open whaleboat, Renton drifted for 2000 miles, only to be washed up on the shores of a Pacific island shunned by 19th-century mariners, Malaita in the Solomon Islands. There he was stripped of his

Overview

Shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868, teenage Scots sailor Jack Renton then found himself on a voyage into the heart of darkness. Escaping from his floating prison in an open whaleboat, Renton drifted for 2000 miles, only to be washed up on the shores of a Pacific island shunned by 19th-century mariners, Malaita in the Solomon Islands. There he was stripped of his clothes by headhunters and forced to 'go native' to survive. Initially a slave to their chief, Kabou, he eventually became the man's most trusted warrior and adviser.

Renton's own account of his eight-year exile, published after he was rescued, remains the only authenticated account of a mental and physical ordeal that still haunts the imagination to this day. It caused a sensation at the time, though it is now clear that it airbrushed out most of the key events.

Researching the Renton legend, Nigel Randell spent several years talking to the Malaitans and piecing together a very different account from Renton's sanitised version. The ultimate irony is that a man so keen to conceal his 'crimes' should have bequeathed their evidence - a necklace of 60 human teeth - to a collector who donated it to a national museum.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
First-time author Randell, a veteran British documentary filmmaker, demonstrates his skilled storytelling in this account of the life and times of Jack Renton, a teenage Scottish sailor who, in 1868, jumped ship near the Solomon Islands and was rescued by a tribe of headhunters from the Pacific island of Malaita. Combining a close reading of a biography of Renton published after he was found eight years later, oral histories from Malaitians and original research, Randell shows that Renton's story encompasses much more than the fact that "no white man had survived for such a length of time in a stone-age culture and no one had ever become so acculturated." He shows how the Malaitian culture was far more complex than the simple image of "headhunters" popularized after Renton's recovery, a society "where the relationship between the living and the dead was a life-long dialogue." Randell also shows that Renton airbrushed his own story to hide just how well he had adapted to his surroundings-killing and headhunting to survive and achieve acceptance among the Malaitians. The most fascinating and horrendous part of Randell's work, however, deals with "the onslaught of white civilization" into the Pacific after Renton's story, as well as that of Captain Cook, became popular-a "remorseless haemorrhaging of population" as thousands of Pacific islanders died from diseases brought by Christian missionaries and syphilis-wracked sailors. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Documentary filmmaker Randell debuts with the story of a young Scottish sailor’s eight-year stay on a South Pacific island. Shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868, Jack Renton managed to jump ship and eventually washed up on Malaita in the eastern Solomons. European explorers and traders traditionally gave this island a wide berth due to its fierce reputation, gained when ships bent on labor trafficking met violent resistance. Surprisingly, Renton wasn’t killed, but was ushered into native society. It was not the seamless transition later depicted in his memoir, published in Australia shortly after he returned to white civilization; the author makes it his business to compare that memoir with the parallel narrative of Renton’s sojourn preserved in the islanders’ oral history, which Randell describes as "anecdotal, episodic, parochial, rich in detail." The young sailor, we learn, was first kept as a slave and gradually moved through the Malaitan hierarchy, despite being a source of tension when rumors of his existence brought the unwelcome attention of Europeans. He rose thanks to his talents in boat-making and his capacity as a killer. "Renton was remarkably adept at covering his own tracks," writes Randell: he made much of the Malaitans’ headhunting in his memoir, but didn’t mention his own participation; he glossed over a relationship with a native woman that would have offended Victorian sensibilities. Painstakingly re-creating Renton’s story from fragmentary material, Randell also chronicles regional European activities, which at the time consisted largely of gunrunning, spreading disease, and destroying local societies. It’s hardly surprising that after Renton became a government agent,charged with supervising the predatory recruitment of native workers for white-owned plantations, that he met his end in the New Hebrides, where his body was "disemboweled and beheaded, then thoroughly cleaned and filled with breadfruit, bananas, yams, and taro roots" prior to being cooked and eaten. A fabulous ethnographic tale inside a larger tragedy of cultural genocide and retaliatory murders. (8 pp. b&w photos, maps, index) Agent: Andrew Lownie

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781472113320
Publisher:
Little, Brown Book Group
Publication date:
08/22/2013
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
5 MB

Meet the Author

Nigel Randell spent 25 years in various parts of the world as a documentary film maker. This is his first book.

Nigel Randell spent twenty-five years making documentary films in various parts of the world. This is his first book.

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